August 1, 2013. Outside of Ghost Ranch about 15 miles north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, I gazed across vistas of worn rocks layered red and brown and tan, punctuated with dark green brush. In the distance, Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that inspired so many of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings and where her ashes are scattered loomed against the sky. The view, however, was streaked with thick spirals of rain falling from low black clouds moving toward me. I looked through the skeletal arms of a creosote bush at Chimney Rock, my destination, rising like an arthritic finger into the darkening sky. I really wanted to get up to it. But I thought of the sign at Ghost Ranch warning of how quickly violent thunderstorms can arise. I called to my wife that we’d better turn around.
Back at the ranch, I looked up at Chimney Rock, bathed in sunlight. The storm had gone around us. I was pissed. Not because I wanted a better view, not because I was particularly interested in what Chimney Rock looked like up close, but because of this voice in my head: Damn it, there you go, quitting.
Growing up with a basketball in my hands, I remember playing in the Portland Maine YMCA, and the signs over the backboards at either end of the court. One read: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going; the other: A Winner Never Quits and A Quitter Never Wins. I carved these commandments into my psyche.
And they have often served me in good stead, inspired me to continue when I’ve wanted to stop. They’ve helped me recover from back surgery, two hip operations, and two hernia surgeries. They play in my head as I do my twenty minutes of exercises every morning. Recalling those words helped me get through some of the darkest days after my daughter’s death. I can’t tell you how many times I relied on those words during the twenty years of rejection letters, rewrites, course work, and financial expense until my novel Requiem in Stones (available—hint, hint—on my website, Amazon, and Maine’s finest independent bookstores) was finally published.
These backboard words of wisdom have also sent me on many a guilt trip. I often regret quitting the trombone—something I was pretty good at—in high school. I still feel guilty about deciding right after my final high school basketball game not to play ball in college, still wonder if I could have played at the college level. I dropped out of the University of Maine forestry program after a year. I’ve quit on a marriage, I left a teaching job in the middle of the year, and quit teaching altogether long before most of my colleagues.
Our society disdains quitters. If you google quotes about quitting, you’ll find that almost all of them say that it’s bad—un-American:
“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever,” said Lance Armstrong, famous America cyclist.
“Americans never quit,” said General Douglas MacArthur.
“A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits,” said U.S. President Richard Nixon.
And yet, as I look again at all those things I quit on, I wonder, was quitting the trombone, basketball, the marriage, that job, really such a bad thing? What’s wrong with swapping a trombone for a banjo? Let’s say I’d played basketball in college. I certainly would never have starred; I was too short and too slow. (Hell, I never starred in high school.) So I’d have sat on the bench, and probably become a high school basketball coach—a job I could never imagine doing. The marriage was lousy; if I’d stayed in that relationship, I’d be dead now, I’m sure. If I’d never left teaching, I could very well have become one of the many cynical, depressed teachers I’ve worked with counting the days until their first retirement check so they could wait for the coffee shops to open in the morning.
While I was searching the net for thoughts about quitting, I found a PBS interview with Ewan Harris, founder of Quitter Quarterly. (It’s now a blog. Look it up.) In 2004, she published a book called The Art of Quitting. In the interview, Harris made a number of arguments in favor of quitting. The story of our lives, she said, is framed by quitting. The essential nature of a quitter is not laziness but a drive to move on. We quit because we’re bored, trapped, or because out dreams don’t match reality. The more things we quit, the more we do. The whole point of quitting is to move in the world.
Which got me thinking. I’m proud of the fact I quit smoking. Quitting booze has improved and possibly saved my life. I’ve got a number of other bad habits I should probably quit as well.
I discovered that the word “quit” is related to the word “quiet,” and originally meant freed or acquitted of a crime. Buddhism and other spiritual traditions warn that clinging strongly to anything or anybody causes suffering, and urge “detachment” or “letting go” as a way to freedom. Jesus’s disciples quit their jobs—threw down their nets—to follow him, and, in turn, he quit his life to show us that love is more powerful than death.
Going back to those Google quotes about the dangers of quitting, considering that Lance Armstrong has been barred from cycling for using illegal performance enhancing drugs to win his Tour de France championships, that President Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, and that Nixon had to resign from office because of trying to cover up illegal campaign activities, I wonder if they—and the country—might have been better off if they had quit.
In her PBS interview, Harris talked about what she called the “quitting cycle.” Our “early quits,” she said, often involve schools and romances. (my God, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I married my first girlfriend!) Our “midlife quits” are our midlife crises. (Mine was the best thing that ever happened to me.) Finally, Harris talked about “older quits,” when we don’t give a damn what people think. I’m not there yet—I still wished I’d made it up to Chimney Rock—but I’m getting better.
As I was writing this essay, I received word that my oldest friend going back to before grade school had suddenly died. Which has driven home to me the fact that I have another “quit” in the cycle right around the corner, one that I have no choice but to make.
Rest in peace, Roger.